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The urge to create art and sacred spaces goes back to humankind’s earliest days. The first Neanderthal cave paintings date back to almost 65,000 years ago. When humans progressed to using stone tools, temples sprang up even before agriculture. Turkey’s Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest temple (that we know of), was constructed 11,500 years ago — at least 500 years earlier than the surrounding farms.
Ornate and often architecturally stunning, temples are found in many religions, although the name “temple” is most commonly used in Eastern religious traditions today. Ásatrú, Iceland’s first new pagan temple in 1,000 years, is under construction in Reykjavik. Here are a few of the world’s most stunning examples from ancient India to modern New Jersey.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar
Dominating the skyline of Yangon, the great gilded stupa of Shwedagon rises more than 350 feet and is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. Said to house relics including eight strands of the Gautama Buddha’s hair, it may be the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world — constructed some 2,600 years ago. Encountering it in 1889, author Rudyard Kipling marveled at the “golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.” Having survived earthquakes, plunders, and protests, the stupa remains the country’s most popular attraction.
Ruins of Paestum, Italy
Three of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples in the world are on display at this magnificent site about 50 miles south of Naples. The modern city of Paestum is a popular beach resort, but Greek Acheans founded it around 600 B.C. and named it Poseidonia, after the god of the sea. The first temple to Hera was erected about 50 years later, with subsequent structures honoring Athena as well as a second temple for Hera. The complex is also rich in painted tombs and has an excellent museum. And compared to other well-known sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum, Paestum is blessedly uncrowded.
Puning Si, China
Northeast of Beijing, the Temple of Universal Peace is a must-see if you are in the area. Commonly known as the “Big Buddha Temple,” it contains one of the largest wooden statues in the world. Modeled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa, it combines classical Chinese and Tibetan architecture. Puning is near the spectacular Chengde Mountain Resort, a stunning complex of imperial gardens and palaces worth a stop in its own right.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, New Jersey
You read that right — the largest Hindu temple on the planet (beating the previous record holder in New Delhi) is smack in the middle of New Jersey. It’s ornate and enormous — more than 2,000 artisans in Rajasthan, India, hand-carved 13,499 pieces of Carrera and Rajasthani marble, which were then assembled on the 152-acre site in Robbinsville. Peacocks stroll the complex, which also houses a well-reviewed vegetarian food court.
Massive and mysterious, this Mesoamerican complex was an early urban melting pot, with archaeological remains pointing to habitation by a diverse population including not only Aztecs but also up to 200,000 residents from as far away as Chiapas and the Yucatan. The Avenue of the Dead is lined with three major pyramids. The largest pays homage to the Sun while the others seek the favor of the Moon and of Quetzalcoatl, a plumed serpent. Part rattlesnake, part bird, the deity was worshipped as the god of winds and rain as well as the creator of the people and the world. Although the site is extensively excavated and well-touristed, many mysteries of Teotihuacán’s origins remain.
Sri Harminder Sahib, India
Located in Amritsar, the “Golden Temple” is one of Sikhism’s holiest sites. The structure is covered with a whopping 750 kilograms of gold leaf, which would be valued at almost $50 million today. The temple is also home to the world’s largest free kitchen, or langar, where volunteers serve hot vegetarian meals each day to up to 150,000 people. The three-story temple is surrounded by an amritsar, a “pool of the nectar of immortality,” and bathers believe the waters provide physical and spiritual benefits.
Philae Temple, Egypt
Karnak and Luxor, of course, are must-sees when you make it to Egypt y. But for sheer beauty, the Temple of Isis on the small island of Agilkia is perhaps equally as enchanting. The bougainvillea-draped oasis sits between the first and second Aswan dams and is dedicated to Isis. Revered by Romans, the goddess had a cult of worshippers that spread as far as England and Afghanistan. After Philae was flooded, the entire temple complex was taken apart and meticulously reassembled, stone by stone, on Agilkia. You can visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site via a three-minute boat ride on the Nile.
Paro Taktsang, Bhutan
Clinging to sheer granite cliffs almost two miles above sea level in the Himalayas, Paro Taktsang is a testament to the devotion of the Buddhist monks who created this temple above the mists and pine forests of the lush Paro Valley in mystical Bhutan. Legend holds that an 8th-century Indian guru flew to the caves on the back of a tigress. Temple construction began in 1692. Now, pilgrims brave steep trails festooned with prayer flags to meditate and worship.
Baha’i Lotus Temple, India
A marvel of modern Expressionist architecture, Delhi’s Lotus temple welcomes visitors of all religions, exemplifying the unity central to the Baha’i faith. Built in the shape of a lotus blossom, the temple is composed of 27 Greek marble slabs arranged in groups of three to form nine petals, surrounded by nine reflecting ponds. Designed by Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba, this oasis of serenity was completed in 1986, and is often referred to as “the modern Taj Mahal.”
Temple of the Crossing of Blue Shore, Seiganto-ji, is a fiery red three-story pagoda built at the foot of Nachi Falls, Japan’s tallest single-drop waterfall. Seiganto-ji is a rare example of jingu-ji, and one of the few still in existence. These worship areas contained a Buddhist temple as well as a Shinto nature shrine, combining elements of two otherwise separate religions. In addition to the pagoda and the falls, the forested site has a unique gong and a hall of lanterns. As a bonus, visitors on a specific date in February are said to be granted one wish — including wisdom, wealth, and power.